We have one candidate running for president in this election with a surprising lack of foreign policy expertise and another who could be arrested. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Last week, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received a question during a television interview about the situation in the city of Aleppo, Syria. Johnson responded with his own question, “…and what is Aleppo?” Meanwhile, during the same week, a county in North Dakota issued an arrest warrant for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. These are the two people who have offered themselves as alternatives to the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land.
Before I go further, I’d like to clarify that I don’t think that the Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton matchup is the best one we could have had this election cycle. Both candidates have their share of faults that diminish their appeal to large swaths of voters. But I also don’t think Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are any better. If it were up to me, I’d give Barack Obama a third term in a heartbeat and happily live the next four years of my life knowing that we’d avoided one of the ugliest, most divisive elections in recent memory. Unfortunately, wishing can’t make it so, and we find ourselves with two major party candidates that our imperfect primary process selected. That being said, the rising stock of third party candidates in this election and the large amount of undecided voters who could still break for one of them made me want to express why I believe voting for a third party candidate (specifically at the presidential level) contradicts the best interest of the voter and the country as a whole.
The current structure of our political system actively punishes everyone involved when a serious third party candidate enters a presidential race. The winner-take-all format of the Electoral College nearly ensures that a third party candidate will never garner any electoral votes. Let’s imagine though, for a moment, that one did attract enough voters to win a handful of states and that this managed to keep the two major party candidates in the election below the 270 vote threshold required to win. The third party candidate would still lose. In that scenario, the House of Representatives decides the winner of the election and Libertarians and Green Partiers aren’t exactly filling the halls of Congress right now. This all means that third party voters essentially have their votes silenced in the selection process. Meanwhile, some other candidate wins the election with 45 percent of the popular vote thanks to the final decision of a couple hundred people in the House of Representatives. Now, America has a president who faces the unenviable task of governing a nation in which over half the electorate didn’t want them elected in the first place. It automatically makes their policy initiatives harder to justify to Congress and the American public, and can stall progress for years. Bill Clinton faced this as a result of Ross Perot’s intervention in the 1992 and 1996 elections. George W. Bush also struggled with it during his first term due to the contentious 2000 election.
I recognize our system for choosing a president isn’t ideal. It ignores important voices of people who vote for third party candidates because they most closely represent them. It forces candidates to appeal to their most extreme supporters just to get nominated for president which only serves to further divide the sides of the political spectrum when most candidates pivot back to the center after the general election starts. Sadly, the rules of the game make it so only two parties can actually compete to win. Imagine playing Monopoly but not being allowed to purchase any properties and still trying to win the game. That’s a similar experience to what third party candidates for president face in our country.
Just look at third parties’ history. They pick up some steam for a while, garner a significant number of votes in an election, and then fade away. Their ideas get co-opted into the major party platforms. Consider the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party of Teddy Roosevelt, the People’s (Populist) Party of the late 1890s or the Reform Party of the 1990s. Their stories all end the same way. They have one ‘successful’ election and shortly after their supporters merge back into one of the two major parties. We default to a two party equilibrium because that’s how the system is built to run.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of voting for a third party candidate. I’ve considered casting my vote that way more than once. I wish we would have viable alternatives when the system fails us. But a vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein doesn’t attack the root cause. If you want lasting change in our political structure, fight for presidential primary reform. Demand that the media add more podiums to the debate stage. Push for the conversion to rank-choice voting. Work to get third party candidates elected at state and local levels where the barriers to entry don’t exist in the same way they do at the presidential level. Petition to abolish the Electoral College so that when a serious third party candidate does rise through the ranks and run for president, they stand a fighting chance. If you want a political revolution, that’s how you start it.